Identifying and resolving value tensions



Technology and Design

Design phase:



Extended Abstract




In this teaching activity, students will learn to apply the second part of the Value Dams and Flows method to identify value tensions in their own project, and they will imagine ways to resolve these tensions in their design. This is important because if a product, system, or service contains elements that go against some stakeholders’ values (even if they are in line with other stakeholders’ values, i.e., if there is a value tension), this could hinder appropriation.


Value tensions occur when different stakeholders have different values or value priorities, leading them to dislike elements of a product, system, or service that other stakeholders do like.

To be able to design the product, system, or service in such a way that it is as much in line with all stakeholders’ values as possible, the designer first needs to identify the value tensions. The designer can then consider how these tensions can be resolved, i.e., how to design for one value that is important to some stakeholders, without sacrificing another value that is important to other stakeholders. This is necessary to ensure that all stakeholders will appropriate the product, system, or service.

It can be difficult for students to identify value tensions, because (1) it requires stakeholder input about many different (potential) elements of the design, and (2) it requires a criterion for when conflicting stakeholder preferences are important enough to be considered a value tension. The Value Dams and Flows method (Miller et al., 2007) offers guidelines for this process. By applying the Value Dams and Flows method, students will be equipped to identify value tensions within their own project, and consider how these tensions could be resolved in their design.


After the teaching activity students will be able to:

  • apply the Value Dams and Flows method to identify value tensions,
  • imagine how these value tensions could be resolved in the design of a system, product, or service.


  • The students should have an ongoing design project in which they have already identified stakeholders, e.g. through the teaching activity Listing stakeholders and their values, and are able to contact these stakeholders.
  • The students should have performed the prerequisite teaching activity Introduction to value tensions. As a result, they should have completed the worksheets provided in that activity, and they should be familiar with value tensions and the Value Dams and Flows method, which they will further execute during this activity. If necessary, refresh their memory using the Value Dams and Flows slides.
  • Decide which stakeholders (and how many) should be involved in step 1 - stakeholder survey.
  • Decide how the stakeholder surveys will be designed in step 1 (e.g., if the survey is digital, decide which survey platform to use, such as Google Forms, and ensure that students will be able to view the response percentages for each answer option).
  • Decide whether each of the steps will be performed in class or as homework.
  • Prepare settings for group work.
  • Walk through the process of the activity with the students: creating a survey for stakeholders, collecting data, identifying value dams and flows, identifying value tensions, imagining ways to resolve them, and (optionally) presenting their work.


The teaching activity consists of four steps.

Step 1 - Stakeholder survey:

  • The student groups open or take out their partially completed worksheet 2B from the teaching activity Understanding value tensions.

  • Using this worksheet, students translate the (revised) harms and benefits and the underlying values to statements their stakeholders may agree or disagree with (also on worksheet 2). For example, the harm “GPS location is tracked” mapped to the value “privacy” could be translated to the harms-related statement “I feel like my privacy is being compromised if the system tracks my GPS location”. Further examples can be found in the Value Dams and Flows slides or in the example of worksheet 2.

  • Each student group creates a survey (either on paper or digitally, e.g. using Google Forms) including all their formulated statements, with a 5-point answer scale for each statement ranging from “strongly disagree”, “disagree”, neutral”, “agree” to “strongly agree”.

  • The students distribute this survey among the relevant stakeholders.

Step 2 - Identifying value dams and flows:

  • The student groups identify value dams by identifying the harms-related statements to which more than 10% of stakeholders responded with “strongly agree”. (In Google Forms, the percentages per answer option are displayed on the results page.) The threshold percentage may be adjusted, for example depending on the number of respondents.

  • The student groups identify value flows by identifying the benefits-related statements to which the majority (> 50%) of stakeholders responded with “agree” or “strongly agree”.

Step 3 - Identifying and resolving value tensions:

  • Each student group reflects on the tensions that may occur between the value dams and value flows they identified. If a value dam occurs for some element of their design (e.g., GPS location tracking), they should consider whether there is a tension with any of the value flows (e.g., getting personalised advice based on location). (If no value tensions occur due to a low number of value dams and flows, students can adjust the threshold percentages for dams and flows.)

  • Each student group lists the value tensions they identified in collaborative software (such as Google Docs), in a way similar to how they listed value tensions on worksheet 1 of the prerequisite activity Introduction to value tensions.

  • For each value tension, each student group imagines and notes down how their product, system or service could balance the value dams and the value flows. In other words, they attempt to resolve the value tensions.

    Note: As an example of value tension resolution, refer back to the example from Miller et al. (2016) provided in the Value Dams and Flows slides.

Step 4 - Presentation (optional):

  • Each student group presents their work to the class. They discuss the value dams and flows they identified, the value tensions they identified, and the ways they plan to resolve value tensions in their design. If they feel like they cannot resolve some or all value tensions (or if they feel like there are no value tensions at all), they explain why this is the case. (Alternatively, each student group can write a report containing the same information.)


To assess whether the intended learning outcomes were attained by the teaching activity the following assessment activities can be carried out (in class or after class).


Assess students' learning by asking them to engage in peer feedback (authentic assessment) on each other’s value tensions. Ask students to comment and pose questions in relation to the identified value dams and flows as well as the plan to resolve value tensions on the design.

Assess students' learning by asking them to apply their knowledge to real-world examples (authentic assessment). To do this, choose an existing product, system, or service. Ask students to write a plan for how they would perform a Value Dams and Flows analysis for that design (considering existing elements of the design, but also possible alternative elements). Then, ask them to imagine possible value tensions that could have occurred, and ways to resolve these tensions.


In the assessment activity ask students to focus on:

  • applying the Value Dams and Flows method to identify value tensions in their project,
  • imagining ways to resolve value tensions in their design and exemplifying this in concrete ways,
  • reflecting on the potential consequences of leaving value tensions unresolved.


Miller, Jessica. K., Friedman, Batya, Jancke, Gavin, & Gill, Bill (2007). Value tensions in design: the value sensitive design, development, and appropriation of a corporation's groupware system. In Proceedings of the 2007 international ACM conference on Supporting group work (pp. 281–290).



Suggested Assessment Activities:

Related Teaching Activities: